This 1941 novel, Trevor's suggestion, features thirty-four-year-old George Harvey Bone who is in the grip of an infatuation with Netta Longdon, an out-of-work minor actress at the centre of a group of idlers who hang around London's Earl's Court all day drinking, or indeed, blagging drinks from others, chiefly from George. The novel opens, however, when George, staying with his aunt on the Norfolk coast for Christmas, suffers one of the mental lapses to which he is increasingly prone, in which he momentarily forgets where he is and is then overtaken by a purpose which at other times he entirely forgets: to kill Netta. Netta and her cohorts treat George cruelly, blatantly and even tauntingly using his infatuation with her to exploit him and going so far as to trick him, but so great is his obsession with her that in his 'sane' moments, he entirely forgets his desire to kill her and once more simply longs to be admitted into her affections.
Introducing the book, Trevor said he had found it hard to get to grips with these mental shifts, by which I think he meant he couldn't understand them on a psychological level. Although there is some implication that they are fuelled, or at least exacerbated, by excessive drinking, the book is epigraphed with a now outdated definition of schizophrenia: SCHIZOPHRENIA: A cleavage of the mental functions, associated with assumption by the affected person of a second
personality. However, George's lapses are in fact more akin to what we might now call a fugue state, a state of forgetting, dissociation and escape. It also seemed to some so very alien to George's somewhat passive and put-upon character that he should have such an impulse in even a dissociated state.
I said however that I didn't think this was meant to be a psychologically realist novel, and Ann agreed, saying that the mental shifts were more of a device, used in my view for a political rather than a psychological purpose. The novel begins very explicitly and indeed self-consciously at the start of 1939 and the run-up to war. As he walks the Norfolk cliff, George wonders when he should kill Netta: 'January the first? That seemed a good idea - starting the New Year - 1939.' Netta and the group around her approve of the Munich appeasement which troubles George; Netta is attracted to fascism for all the most decadent reasons:
She was supposed to dislike fascism, to laugh at it, but actually she liked it enormously. In secret she liked pictures of marching, regimented men, in secret she was physically attracted by Hitler. She did not really think that Mussolini looked like a funny burglar. She liked the uniform, the guns, the breeches, the boots, the swastikas, the shirts. She was, probably, sexually stimulated by these things in the same way as she might have been sexually stimulated by a bull-fightand the unpleasant Peter, with whom George is devastated to find Netta is sexually involved, and who has been in jail, once for what he calls 'a minor spot of homicide with a motor-car', (and whose brutality is another source of attraction for Netta) is a Nazi sympathiser, if not an out-and-out Moseleyite.
In my view George's obsession with Netta, mired in the unthinking alcohol-soaked stasis of an idle life, is intended to stand for the dreamlike British psyche in the run-up to the war; it is George's fugue-like states which are the true sanity: the moments in which he sees evil for what it is and recognises that it must be destroyed, however contrary that runs to his nature.
Ann said she felt there was also a class theme operating. Netta and Peter and co are social climbers and they tolerate George not simply for what they can get out of him materially, but for the association with the kind of social background including a minor public school education that is George's. Indeed, in discussing Netta's attraction to fascism, the narration comments: 'And somehow she was dimly aware of the class content of all this: she connected it with her own secret social aspirations'. John noted the similarity in atmosphere and situation to that of Jean Rhys's Voyage in the Dark, published seven years earlier and which we discussed previously: a book set in a similar alcohol-soaked social milieu in the run up to the earlier war, with a similar sense of social breakdown and uncertain future - though, as we all noted, Rhys's book is much more psychologically internal (and thus to my mind more modern).
Jenny said she had read this book more simply as a depiction of a man manipulated by cruel people and unable to withstand them due to his amenable nature, and had found it very moving indeed. Everyone agreed that the book did work powerfully on that level, but whether this mix of modes works is perhaps questionable. Because George's character and emotional state are so richly portrayed, I found it difficult to believe that he would ever kill Netta. Others reported being very engaged by the question of whether he would, and the tension created as the narration led towards the possibility. John had said he thought the 'schizophrenia' device was a clever way of engaging your sympathies with him when he finally does so, but people experienced surprise, even shock, while some, including me, rather lost sympathy with George at this point - or rather, I found myself jerked out of the emotional engagement induced by the psychological realism and forced back to the detachment created by a more political allegory.
On the whole, I think people found the book thus slightly problematic, but everyone was agreed that it is a striking book, steeped in atmosphere and social-historical details that everyone relished, and rendered in acute prose beautifully exemplified in this description of Peter from George's point of view: 'And he laughed in his nasty, moustachy way.'
Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here